A mission to Europa, even a fictional one, is good news for planetary scientists

2013-09-19T00:00:00Z A mission to Europa, even a fictional one, is good news for planetary scientistsBy Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Planetary scientists like the movie “Europa Report” for a simple reason: It exists.

They’ll quibble about the accuracy of its science, but generally give it good marks for its depiction of a mission to Europa, the frozen moon of Jupiter that some planetary scientists think could harbor life and is long overdue for a NASA mission.

You can see the movie and hear expert commentary from planetary scientist Veronica Bray at the Loft Cinema on Wednesday.

The film is one in an occasional “Science of Fiction” collaborations between the Loft and the University of Arizona College of Science, sponsored by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

Bray, who studies impact craters on planetary bodies, will introduce the film and field questions at its conclusion.

She prepared for the task by screening the movie with four colleagues from the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

“We really got into the nitpicking,” she said, “but we’re glad a movie has been made about exploration of Europa.”

The major objection Bray and her colleagues had was not about the scientific details, but the professionalism of the crew. Nobody seemed to be in charge, and catastrophe ensued from bad decisions. “All of the deaths could probably have been avoided,” said Bray.

The plot of the movie unfolds in documentary style as a report compiled by the private space corporation that launched a mission to Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon, to drill through its icy crust and search for signs of microbial life in the liquid ocean beneath.

The crew deploys a lander near Conamara Chaos, one of many fractured regions on Europa where, some planetary scientists theorize, warm ice has erupted from beneath the surface, providing contact between energy on the surface and nutrients in the ocean.

The thickness of Europa’s ice crust has been debated since NASA’s Voyager and Galileo missions, in 1979 and 1999, took images of the planet.

The Lunar and Planetary Lab’s Richard Greenberg, who was a member of that Galileo imaging team, has long argued the “thin crust” side of the argument in journal articles and books.

Greenberg would have been the obvious choice for introducing the film, which takes his side of the argument, but was out of the country this month.

Bray was too young to be part of any mission to Europa, but she is fascinated by it and supports mounting a robotic mission to it.

At the UA, she is part of the NASA HiRISE imaging team on Mars and she participates in the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team at Arizona State University.

She has also studied impact craters in images of Europa taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft and has her own opinion about the thickness of Europa’s encasing ice. She estimates its overall depth at 7 to 9 kilometers.

In the film, the crew finds a much shallower crust to drill through.

Their investigation, told in bits and pieces of video transmitted back to Earth, captures both the danger of space travel and the excitement of discovery.

If, indeed, there is life to be found on Europa, it would be the most important discovery of all time — a goal more important to this crew than their individual lives.

This is not a big, flashy sci-fi movie, but it captures the claustrophobic nature of space travel and the tenuousness of life without backup. The sets are realistic, the images of Europa are stunning and the zero-gravity movement is balletic.

Because it is told in found-footage style, the movie has little in the way of character development or narrative exposition. The competent cast has little to do.

The suspense and the questions keep the movie going: Will life be found? What form will it take? Will any of the crew live to tell the tale?

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

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